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Adventist Health Lodi Memorial cook Juan Contreras loses 30 pounds by making healthy changes

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Menudo.

That was his vice.

Juan Contreras would spoon rich Mexican soup, chunky with meat, hominy, onion and cilantro into his bowl. He would sit down with an icy Coke and plate of flame-blackened flour tortillas, often using as many as eight tortillas to sop up the last drops of delicious red chili broth.

Three times a week, this was his tradition – until a health screening and a few patient interactions startled him.

Juan is a well-known face around Adventist Health Lodi Memorial, where he has worked in Nutrition and Food Services for seven years. During the breakfast and lunch rushes in the hospital’s Vineyard Café, he can be found sautéing veggies at the Mongolian grill or flinging cheeseburgers for a whirlwind of employees and visitors. Though he is relatively short in stature –standing at 5 feet, 2 inches – he is hard to miss. His smile is wide, and there’s rarely a customer who doesn’t catch him laughing or singing along to the kitchen’s radio.

It’s been about two years since his customers – mostly employees –started to see a difference in Juan. The pounds had seemed to slip away. His face thinned. His black chef’s coats were getting smaller. He even started inspiring others to make healthier choices at his grill.

Juan traded in his bowls of menudo and tortillas for healthier options after a biometric screening showed him his reality – though, it didn’t happen immediately.

“The first year they told me I was pre-diabetic, but I didn’t listen to them. So, I just kept eating,” says Juan.

Then, he had another screening one year later. His weight peaked at 225 pounds. The screening nurse told him he was on a fine line for diabetes, and his doctor put him on medication for cholesterol and diabetes. At work behind the café counter, he saw a clear picture of his future if he continued his menudo path.

“I see a lot of people in the café, some diabetic patients,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t see them for six months or a year, and when I do, they’re back without a leg. That got scary.”

Unsure where to start, Juan reached out to Adventist Health Lodi Memorial clinical dietitian Becky Vatanparast, who went over his biometric screenings results. Together, they talked about ways to reduce his daily diet of pork and beef tacos, beans, rice and soda. She helped him reduce his daily intake of 90 grams of carbohydrates in ways that were manageable in his lifestyle. He started eating more chicken and less red meat and eliminated pork altogether. If he had tortillas with a meal, he would have just one or two. He learned to swap white rice and pasta for a portioned serving of whole grains.

It’s been 18 months of a new way, and Juan’s life has been changed. He smiles just as big as before, but there’s a new story of gratitude behind it. He feels better, which he also attributes to the 45-minute walk he does every night while listening to ’80s cardio, salsa and cumbia on his neighborhood streets. His wife is happier with her husband’s new peppy vibrancy, and she’s gotten healthier, too, he says.

Juan has lost 30 pounds and is continuing to become leaner and stronger. He attributes his success to small changes, as well as preparation. At family get-togethers, where food was once the reigning star, Juan now brings his own washed and prepped lettuce leaves so he doesn’t reach for the stack of tortillas. Instead of massive bowls of menudo for breakfast, he whips up healthy scrambles with egg whites, spinach and salsa. He has discovered healthy food is a creative outlet and enjoys experimenting. His cupboards and refrigerator are now filled with things he didn’t eat much of before: Hearty nuts and seeds, hummus, homemade vinaigrettes, almond milk, salmon he serves up with sautéed vegetables and water flavored with fresh cucumber and lemon – or sometimes strawberry, mint or watermelon, if he’s feeling fancy.

Deprivation is something he doesn’t feel, simply because he is filling himself with whole, healthy foods that will keep him living well and inspiring his family and friends for a long, long time.

Juan’s tips for success

  • Replace pasta and white rice with portioned whole grains, like whole-grain rice and bread.
  • Cut out all candy, soda and other unnecessary sugars.
  • Start with cutting back on things you are scared to eliminate. Juan went from as many as eight tortillas per meal to one or two. Now he takes lettuce leaves to barbecues and skips tortillas altogether.
  • Eat salt in moderation; he doesn’t keep a salt shaker on the table
  • Use small plates: You’ll be tempted to add more food to larger plates.
  • Prep vegetables in advance: Juan will cook vegetables three days in advance (for example, stir-fried broccoli). He recommends washing and chopping veggies, then storing them in Ziploc bags to cook later.